Sustainable food: even small gestures can trigger changes in behaviour

By Gabi Hildesheimer, 23.12.2015

Michael Gerber

Gabi Hildesheimer is an associate partner at FehrAdvice & Partners AG. Behaviour and sustainability, including policy advice and public relations, are the focus of her work. From 1997 to 2014 she was managing director of Öbu (Swiss Sustainable Business Network). She  studied biology at the University of Zurich.

A behavioural economics experiment shows how Switzerland feeds itself today and reveals that even minor interventions can yield significant changes in behaviour. All that is needed is a common goal and support for the implementation of new behaviours – without advice, the majority of people still do not know what they should do.

Almost 30 percent of Switzerland’s total environmental impact is generated by food. Thus, considerable potential exists in this area for contributing to the creation of a more healthy environment. However, the food-related behaviour of Swiss people is deeply rooted in tradition, culture and habits.

So how can eating habits that have become established over a very long period of time be changed? Providing an answer to this question is the aim of a study entitled “Ernährung und Nachhaltigkeit in der Schweiz” (“Food and sustainability in Switzerland”), which was published in November 2015 and was carried out by the behavioural economics consultancy FehrAdvice & Partners AG with the support of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN).

  • Based on its behavioural economics approach, the study provides new insights into the following two questions: In which situations are people most willing to adapt their behaviour towards greater sustainability?
  • What are the means by which human behaviour can be systematically changed in the direction of ecologically sustainable eating habits and how can this change be supported effectively and efficiently?

Quantifying behaviour
The main component of the survey carried out as part of the study was a virtual shopping situation. Prior to making a purchase, the participants were exposed to different ‘treatments’ so that the effects of certain messages or tips and different forms of dissemination could be measured. The influence of hunger and stress on the ‘ecological shopping bag’ was also examined.

Other parts of the survey focused on people’s awareness of the impacts of behaviour and their willingness to contribute to improving their behaviour.  Both of these aspects were examined generally and specifically in very different contexts, and also from the perspective of knowledge of the environment and the participants’ value systems. The contexts included, for example: prudent shopping, shopping when stressed, the avoidance of food waste in households and restaurants, using all parts of the animal in meat consumption (‘from nose to tail’).

Clear knowledge gaps
The results of the survey show that people in Switzerland are very aware that their food habits have an impact on the environment. However, their willingness to feed themselves in an ecologically sustainable way varies.

The study also reveals that there are some obvious gaps in the Swiss population’s knowledge about the implementation of sustainable food habits – for example, the majority of people are not able to correctly identify the seasonality of fruit and vegetables or the environmental impacts caused by products.

Long-term behavioural change can only be achieved if these gaps are filled. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned campaigns will remain unsuccessful as people do not know how they should behave when faced with concrete decisions.

Education and values as a basis for behavioural change
Education – in relation to the dissemination of environmental facts, but also for the development of a set of values based on ecological principles – is central to the attainment of substantial and enduring progress. Because the early years of life have a strong influence on the shaping of values, education assumes an important role here, even in the case of young children. Starting the work at this level pays off in the long term as strong values protect people against the negative impacts of stress.

Short-term influence through ‘nudging’
The study also demonstrates ways of affecting behaviour in the short term: even small interventions can lead to significant changes in behaviour. People can be motivated through the setting of common goals (“Switzerland reduces the environmental impact of food by half!”) and by providing them with simple tips by way of support.

People with deep-rooted knowledge about implementing food-related behaviour can be helped to change their behaviour by compensating for any uncertainty they may have and nudging them in the direction of the right decisions. Nudging also helps people who have the necessary knowledge and usually eat sustainably. Their behaviour can veer in the wrong direction in stressful situations. Thus nudging can be used to kill two birds
with one stone.

Shared responsibility
It is particularly important to keep one thing in mind when designing measures to encourage food sustainability: people in Switzerland would like to shoulder their part of the responsibility. In general, Swiss people show a clear willingness to accept responsibility for their eating habits – as long as this responsibility is shared between them and the other stakeholders involved.

This can also be understood as a call to action to the entire food industry to develop proactive strategies. Consumers are willing to cooperate and will support the measures taken. Cost-efficient ways of exploiting this potential to the full and building on existing successes can often be found through combining new measures with existing ones. In this way, it is possible to achieve the socially desirable outcome: i.e. more ecologically sustainable food for the entire Swiss population.


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Last modification 23.12.2015

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